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Generator History

In the early part of the 20th century electricity was just beginning to take root in the United States.  Prior to electricity homes were lit with gas, oil, or candle.  Labor saving devices in the home and farm were usually powered by crank or in the cases of larger equipment, by gas or steam engine.  Urban areas were quick to install power plants and run power lines.  Rural areas were much different however and there was not the market for a power company to install plants and lines for a few small farms and towns. fansmall

Though there were recommendations for rural electrification as far back as 1909 by such committees as the Country Life Commission, little was done.  By 1920 one third of American homes had electricity and this rose to two thirds by 1929.  Of these homes 85% were urban though. 

If you lived in a small rural community it was up to you to provide your own power.  Today we have generators for backup in case of power failure, back in the early 20th century your generator was all the power you had.  As electric appliances were advertised and became more available (toasters, vacuum cleaners, and of course, bright, clean electric light) more people of course had a desire for electric power.

To cater to the rural un-electrified many companies began producing light plants and home generators.  In 1916 DELCO introduced their home electric plants.  In 1920 Kohler introduced the Kohler Automatic light plant.  150 other companies joined in by the mid 1920’s including Fairbanks Morse, Westinghouse and General Gas and Electric.

WWI These home plants ran the gamut from 32 volt to 110 volt DC and there were 110 volt AC options as well.  These were the three “standards” though we are all used to 110 volt AC current today.   Alternating Current eventually became the standard for homes in part due to its ability to travel long distances without needing a boost. 

The Kohler Automatic seems very modern to many people today.  These robust and quiet machines could sleep in an outbuilding on a farm and then awaken with the flick of a light switch.  The Kohler required 24 volts to start automatically, and then generated the 110 volts required for an individual's home and appliances. 

The Kohler Automatic that I own remains un-restored, and was used for years on an annual basis to run toy trains at a gas engine show in upstate New York. I mounted this Kohler on a custom cart made by Allan Hanford of Massachusetts, unfortunately I hear he no longer makes carts.   The Kohler now provides power twice a year at the Great War Association WWI site in Newville, PA.  The reenactors there have nicknamed my Kohler "Tessie" after Tesla.  We still start it in the evening by merely pulling a light switch then waiting less then a minute for the Kohler to settle in at the required RPM and soon we are illuminated by the steady glow of 110 volt DC power.  What amazes me is that after 80 years this machine will still run for 14 to 20 hours in a weekend without a problem.  It can also sit for six months and with a mere priming of the pump start up quickly.   There is a reason why such great explorers as Admiral Byrd relied on these trusty generators.


Sources, Links

"Let There Be Light" by Richard Backus, Gas Engine Magazine January, 2004

A Cultural History of the United States, The 1920's  By Erica Hanson (no relation)
ISBN# 1-56006-552-4

Kohler Power Website

This site has very useful photographs, history, serial number information and manual scans.

This links directly to the Smokstak Kohler Generator forum.